Word has leaked through various channels that the much talked about and largely maligned LEAD Task Force will issue a report in early April. On the surface this would be encouraging although as my colleague Katy Burnett likes to point out, even early April gives the Republicans a five month head start for the 2016 cycle. After a few weeks of digging concerning this early April date and the release of recommendations a few items have percolated to the surface. Each is interesting in its own regard and we will attempt to break them out and explain them here so activist Democrats across the state who feel disaffected from the process due to the lack of official information can process what we have learned.
Task Force Meetings
The task force hasn’t met regularly and has yet to sign off as a whole on a report. Yet TFS has learned through multiple state legislators that informal briefings have already taken place with members of the State House and State Senate on the possible recommendations. This indicates that many of the suggestions that will be made in the report have been determined behind closed doors either by party insiders or staff/consultants. For some, this top-down approach is preferable to anarchy that comes from the “wild west” of endless committee meetings and the agenda-driven preferences of some state committee members as well as those who have been appointed to the LEAD Task Force. Yet, for others this will not sit very well. Following another electoral defeat in November it will be argued by the critics, the Democrats in power continue to operate in ways that seek a maintenance of power over a more open dialogue.
Keeping small counties on side for the changes that come ostensibly from the task force but probably from party insiders has motivated the continued promotion of “one county, one vote.” In fact we have learned some of the push for a complete overhaul of the rules have actually come from urban counties and from factions out of power in some places but close to the state party leadership. While it appears the momentum for “one county one vote” has fizzled in the past week or so, the leadership of the party we are told would still like to create a mechanism that strips the power of some entrenched State Committee people. From our vantage point this is a good thing, but a concern that has continued to dominate discussions we have had is the desire of some in the party to continue to control the election for FDP Chair with some that has hand chosen. On this score, the LEAD Task Force is expected to recommend that the FDP Chair not have to be a seated member of a DEC or a member of the State Committee in advance of election. I will be perfectly honest in saying I am not sure this is legal under state statutes (we will investigate further) but it is of concern regardless of legality – while it would good to open the chairs election up to active Democrats across the state, it also might be detrimental in that a chair who is an elected official with his/her own agenda might take the reigns or worse yet someone with no experience are understanding of Florida’s past and the party’s history makes a quixotic campaign and wins. This is why rules reform is difficult – we think most objective people would agree the rules of the Florida Democratic Party need to be reformed, but the concern that keeps being expressed to us is that these rules changes may be agenda driven. with specific goals or even individuals in mind as the beneficiaries.
The discussion of the need to run more “moderate” candidates and have more “moderate” messaging is not only getting old – but is born directly out of lazy stereotypes and a lack of connection between party elites and grassroots activists. Moderates do have a role in the Democratic Party – however the party needs to be a values based entity which promotes progressive ideas which include social and economic justice. We have consistently heard through our channels that the party would like to see more “business friendly” candidates seek office, and have in subtle ways blamed progressives for the poor electoral performance of the party. I can state from personal experience this same rhetoric was shouted by the party after 2000 (including a renewed emphasis on counties between the Apalachicola and Suwannee Rivers) and we were rewarded with an electoral disaster in 2002. At the time, I bought into some of this logic, being young somewhat brashly naive and a party hack for lack of a better term. But 2002 taught me it was all nonsensical and since that time Florida has shifted further left in terms of demographics and attitudes.
The whole moderate discussion is illogical considering when progressives get excited and activated in mass the Democrats achieve greater success in Florida as we saw in 2000, 2008 and 2012. The voters are also being misunderstood in many ways by elites in the Democratic Party.
Even if voters describe themselves as “moderates,” in public surveys, chances are quite high they vote based on one or two issues where they are either clearly conservative or clearly liberal. This is particularly true in midterm elections, the elections where Florida Democrats have been wiped out time and again. Lower voter turnout in midterm elections among Democrats from my vantage point can be traced largely if not wholly to a party brand that does not identify with the values it campaigns on during Presidential years. The party’s messaging also has consistently failed to mirror the voices of leading progressive groups. But these groups have had very little input in the party’s messaging and direction.
Scores of Democrats across the state have complained to us about the lack of access to information about the LEAD Task Force or any other changes the Florida Democratic Party are making post 2014 electoral debacle. To this point, TFS’ writers have taken a different tact – Katy Burnett has been outspoken in articulating her view that the party should be doing much more. I, on the other hand have defended the party stating the process is complicated and information will flow out in time. However, at this stage of the game it is difficult to continue defending the lack of access to information or the processes around the formulation of any task force report. While we might find ourselves pleasantly surprised in a few weeks, chances are this might prove to be yet another exercise in futility; paper pushing after yet another electoral wipeout. The critics have been relentless in demanding more transparency and information from Florida’s Democrats and more honesty about the status of consultants and party officials. While I feel some of the demands and criticism have been over-the-top and many have come from what we would describe as “permanent malcontents” the reality has become more and more obvious to me – despite the best efforts of Chairwoman Allison Tant to make at least cosmetic reforms to the way the party operates, other invisible and permanent hands generally based in and around the capital city make the final decisions.
Much of the discussion about “reform” and “positive changes” in the party amounts to insider baseball being played by party operatives and consultants who are simply trying to save each others skin after another terrible election cycle. The laziness of the narrative about promoting “moderate” candidates and “rules reform” reinforces this notion.
I believe Chairwoman Allison Tant deserves credit for trying to make changes. She is after all the first chair of the party since Charlie Whitehead who didn’t have higher office in mind while running the party. But the processes and inertia around the party just never seem to change. Most party actions are either simply window dressing or designed with a certain outcome in mind. The LEAD Task Force we had hoped would be different – perhaps it still will be different although the early returns give us pause.